On Morally Supporting Abstinence-Based Sex Ed

"Photo a day project: February 2006" by Jenny Lee Silver via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Atlantic published an article titled “Sex Ed Without the Sex” this past week by writer Olga Khazen. In that article, Khazen traced current sexual education practices in the city of Odessa, Texas. Odessa represents the widely used ideology of current sex ed courses throughout the United States, which is laden with conservative, Phyllis Schlafly-esque teachings. At this time, only 13 states require sex ed lessons to include medically accurate facts, while less than half actually require sex ed to be taught in school.

Currently, Odessa is home to Life Center, an alternative to Planned Parenthood (long gone after widespread state cuts), and now serves over 80 schools in the region. Life Center approaches sexual education through two avenues. One is through a conservative, Christian perspective in which abstinence is taught as the only way to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. This avenue is mostly used in the centers where pregnant women go for prenatal classes and where individuals go to seek post-abortion counseling (although it is commonly directed to show abortion as an immoral way to confront pregnancy). During classes in schools, Life Center aims for a more secular approach. Although not discussed thoroughly, Life Center’s Judy Rouse believes their approach does not conflict with secular school teachings.

Unfortunately, the program does not provide helpful information on access to contraception. After being in the program for three days, many teens were unaware that they could access condoms for free at most pregnancy centers. The conversation surrounding contraception methods, such as IUDs, are burdened with inaccurate information. Employees of Life Center present the conversation on IUDs, which according to the CDC has a failure rate of less than one percent, that a 99% success rate means 1 out of 100 situations will result in pregnancy. Obviously, this is completely false. Because of these teachings, Ector County, which encompasses Odessa, remains one of the highest centers for teen pregnancy, boasting a 98 teen pregnancies per 1,000 teen girls, while the overall rate in Texas is 68.

Planned Parenthood has noted that the teachings of contraception methods has reduced the likelihood of teenage pregnancies while not running the risk of increasing sexual activity among teens nor increasing the amount of partners per teen. Inaccurately teaching about contraception methods can result in mass confusion over subjects such as protection from sexually transmitted infections. According to a study noted in the same Planned Parenthood brochure, researchers found that half of teens had not heard of emergency contraception methods and more than a quarter believed that birth control protected against sexually transmitted infections, including both HIV and AIDS.

These same programs also fail to provide any information on consent. When sex ed programs focus heavily on abstinence-only methods of teachings, its shortfall lies in its disregard of subjects such as personal autonomy, boundaries, consent, and various aspects of healthy relationships. As of now, only two states (Michigan and California) require consent to be taught in sex ed programs before graduation from high school. In colleges throughout the country, programs that have focused on consent or bystander intervention methods have resulted in lower levels of sexual aggression in males followed by fewer instances of rape.

Indiana seems to follow in a similar suit to Texas and a majority of states in relation to sex ed. Presently, while HIV education is mandated in Indiana, sexual education is not. There are no policies to ensure that the teachings are secular, medically accurate, and unbiased in nature. Parental roles in sexual education are near non-existent. Indiana is one of the states that stresses the importance of abstinence and sex within the boundaries of marriage. Virtually no policies have been made to promote the use of contraception or even to cover the idea of consent within sexual actions.

Although our political ideologies may conflict with having an inclusive concept of sexuality and of the teachings in more progressive sex ed programs, the science and statistics have to overrule. Clearly, teaching about the use of contraception has correlated with a higher rate of their use and a lower rate of teen pregnancy. Further pushing for the idea of consent in relationships will likely lead to less instances of sexual harassment, rape, and pregnancy in teen relationships. What we can do as morally responsible individuals is to push our legislators to produce policies that have accurate scientific data and provide information on free access to forms of contraception. By doing so, we have the ability to reduce current teen pregnancy rates and dish away our place as the leader in teen pregnancy rates among developed nations.

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Nathaniel Reed is a Junior Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies double major. He enjoys running, hiking, reading, and drinking coffee.